Pa­pers’ pleas for cash look like black­mail

Pub­lic trust at risk in per­ceived quid pro quo

Edmonton Journal - - NEWS - An­drew Coyne

All through the Cana­dian news­pa­per busi­ness’s long, doomed strug­gle against the in­evitable, the word on in­dus­try ex­ec­u­tives’ lips has been “run­way.” As in, “we’re just try­ing to give our­selves a lit­tle more run­way.” After each lay­off, each sale or merger or shut­ter­ing of a century-old fran­chise, it was the same: we just need a lit­tle more run­way.

The im­age this is sup­posed to con­vey is of an air­plane hurtling down the tar­mac, strug­gling to take off. There’s noth­ing wrong with the plane, you un­der­stand. Give it enough room to pick up speed, and it will surely make it off the ground. The only ques­tion is whether it has enough run­way.

Well now it’s 2018, and the end of the run­way is fast ap­proach­ing, with no sign of liftoff. The in­dus­try is, in­creas­ingly, putting aside any pre­tence that it can avert the hor­rific crash for which it is headed. What was once a fringe idea, some­thing no re­spectable news­pa­per COM­MENT would dream of in­dulging, is in­stead be­com­ing the new mantra: the gov­ern­ment must bail us out.

In­deed, the Trudeau gov­ern­ment seemingly hav­ing failed to re­spond to their de­mands with the proper en­thu­si­asm, the pub­lish­ers have be­come in­creas­ingly shameless in ad­vanc­ing their self-in­ter­ested cause — not just in the usual lun­cheon speeches or lob­by­ing ses­sions, but more and more in the pages of their own pa­pers.

Lead­ing the way has been John Hon­derich, chair­man of Torstar, which pub­lishes the Toronto Star. In a Jan. 26 op-ed, pub­lished not only in the Star but in a num­ber of other Torstar-owned pa­pers, Hon­derich ex­pressed his dis­may at the gov­ern­ment’s “stud­ied in­dif­fer­ence” in the face of what he called the “cri­sis of qual­ity jour­nal­ism.” He sin­gled out for par­tic­u­lar scorn Her­itage Min­is­ter Mélanie Joly.

This week the Star was back, this time with a lengthy news piece out of its Ot­tawa bureau. This time it quoted not only Hon­derich, but Bob Cox, pub­lisher of the Win­nipeg Free Press and chair­man of News Me­dia Canada, the pub­lish­ers’ trade as­so­ci­a­tion, to­gether with a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Uni­for, the union that rep­re­sents many news­pa­per em­ploy­ees. Nowhere in its nearly 1,300 words would you find any hint of a sug­ges­tion that any­one, any­where out­side of gov­ern­ment, bore any reser­va­tions about the gov­ern­ment get­ting into bed with the news­pa­pers, or that the roots of the in­dus­try’s woes lay in any­thing but forces out­side its con­trol: “a pre­cip­i­tous de­cline in ad rev­enues, the shift to dig­i­tal and the dom­i­neer­ing on­line pres­ence of Face­book and Google.”

More or less si­mul­ta­ne­ously, a highly sym­pa­thetic piece ap­peared in the Globe and Mail, in­ter­view­ing, of all peo­ple, the chair­man of Torstar. Once again the vil­lains were iden­ti­fied as “de­clin­ing print ad­ver­tis­ing, and a boom­ing dig­i­tal econ­omy,” with a side­long men­tion of the her­itage min­is­ter.

To be sure, Hon­derich ad­mit­ted in pass­ing, “we are the au­thors of our own mis­for­tune.” The Star, like other pa­pers, put its con­tent on­line for free; like other pa­pers, it forced read­ers to put up with a suc­ces­sion of hideously de­signed web­sites, then wasted $40 mil­lion on an un­read­able tablet app; all this, I might add, on top of the decades of print-based medi­ocrity that pre­ceded it.

None of which de­terred him in the slight­est from de­mand­ing mil­lions more from the tax­pay­ers. We screwed up. Now you get to pay for it.

This is a re­mark­able, and trou­bling, devel­op­ment. Rea­son­able peo­ple can dif­fer on whether the gov­ern­ment should res­cue the news­pa­per in­dus­try from its own mis­takes. I’ve ar­gued it’s un­nec­es­sary — noth­ing is prevent­ing peo­ple from pay­ing for what we pro­duce if they choose and, in fact, the better pa­pers are find­ing more and more peo­ple will­ing to do so.

Worse, it would, I am con­vinced, do great harm: be­cause it would in­volve the gov­ern­ment in de­cid­ing who was el­i­gi­ble for sup­port and who was not, and not in­ci­den­tally, be­cause it would change how we our­selves viewed the role of gov­ern­ment, and our re­la­tion­ship to it.

Others will take a con­trary view. But of all the voices that might ar­gue for gov­ern­ment sup­port of news­pa­pers, the very last should be those of the news­pa­pers them­selves, least of all in their own pages. This is not just craven, or in bad taste, or an ob­vi­ous con­flict of in­ter­est. It is cross­ing a line that should never be crossed.

Con­sider. Here we have pub­lish­ers is­su­ing de­mands for cash to the gov­ern­ment, in the run-up to an elec­tion, via the re­porters they em­ploy. (And not only by such means: I am told Hon­derich has met per­son­ally with the prime min­is­ter on the sub­ject.) Can we pre­tend their cover­age of that gov­ern­ment will re­main un­af­fected by its an­swer? Can we pre­tend that it even has to date?

Or turn it around. We have a gov­ern­ment that, in fact, has not ruled out the pos­si­bil­ity, but rather has said only that it will not bail out “non-vi­able busi­ness models.” The com­ing bud­get, we are led to be­lieve, will con­tain as­sis­tance for “lo­cal news” and the “tran­si­tion” to dig­i­tal for­mats.

Can we pre­tend that its de­ci­sion will be en­tirely un­re­lated to how the news­pa­pers be­have: not only the cover­age it re­ceives, but the prom­ises they un­der­take? Why would we, when the pub­lish­ers them­selves have ex­plic­itly pro­posed that aid should be re­stricted to par­tic­u­lar types of pub­li­ca­tions — their own — and in re­turn for, as the Star story noted, “re­port­ing on elected of­fi­cials and pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions.”

And even if no such quid pro quo is ad­vanced, im­plied or un­der­stood: can the pub­lic be ex­pected to place their trust in the me­dia’s cover­age, know­ing such ne­go­ti­a­tions are un­der way, pub­licly and pri­vately?

Call it black­mail, call it bribery, call it some­thing in be­tween, but it stinks.


A news­pa­per bailout would in­volve the gov­ern­ment in de­cid­ing who was el­i­gi­ble for sup­port, An­drew Coyne says.

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